CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 24 . . . . February 24, 2012
Willow Dawson’s graphic novel, Hyena in Petticoats: The Story of Suffragette Nellie McClung, is a congenial partnership of image and text. Its unusual title echoes the disparaging epithet with which Premier Rodmond Roblin dismissed Nellie McClung after she pressed him on the topic of women’s suffrage. However, Dawson playfully subverts Roblin’s metaphor by emphasizing McClung’s hyena-like doggedness and vocality as positive traits. Although this McClung is as nice as pie--she is “never rude,” preferring instead to pair “wit” with “courteousness” in her speech (p. 60)--there is never any doubt that she covets the vote. In fact, Hyena in Petticoats frames McClung’s whole life within the context of her quest for the fair and equitable treatment of women.
The book is pleasing to the sight and touch, although the ink used emits an odor reminiscent of railway ties. The title on its smooth, matte cover rests on a diagonal banner that begins three-quarters of the way down the right-hand side of the front cover. The scalloped edging and the serifed font channel a bit of old-fashioned feminine charm. In a close-up of McClung’s face, as drawn by Dawson in the top left-hand corner, the eyes gaze out at the reader. The warmth of McClung’s wheat-coloured face, peach cheeks, and carmine lips and collar contrasts with the cooler slate blue background overlaid with a dark teal floral motif. The trapezoidal wedge below the title depicts a throng of demonstrators, some holding picket signs, led by McClung in a carmine bodice and a handful of other female figures. First impressions, then, connote both McClung’s femininity and feminism.
Inside, on the title page’s verso, beneath the copyright notice, a sentence asserts, “This narrative draws upon dialogue and descriptions from Nellie McClung’s autobiographies Clearing in the West (1935) and The Stream Runs Fast (1945).” To deepen those historical connections, the table of contents bears chapter titles, such as “Sowing Seeds” and “Leaves and Lanterns,” which recall two of McClung’s published works, Sowing Seeds in Danny and Leaves from Lantern Lane. A total of nine chapters, the first and longest 17 pages, the last and shortest five, follow McClung through the various roles in which she cast herself: daughter, student, teacher, homemaker, author, lecturer, crusader, and politician. Diagonal banners carry titles across the initial pages of chapters, serving as sly reminders, along with frequent changes in perspective, that Dawson approaches the biography from a particular slant, visually and textually, even as she draws upon and draws out autobiographical particulars.
Were it not for the graphic novel format, McClung and the causes she passionately championed--temperance, fair working conditions for immigrants, and women’s right to vote--might seem too staid and stuck in the past to interest today’s readers. Instead, Dawson’s recognition of the dramatic possibilities inherent in autobiography resurrects this extraordinary Canadian icon and her legacy. Already in its opening frames, the book portrays a spirited protagonist: the one-page introduction shows 10-year-old Nellie punching a boy over a perceived slight because he can read and she cannot. This heroine-in-the-making quickly learns to combat inequality with intellect and oratory rather than fisticuffs. Ever the performer, she evolves from a child reenacting her aunts’ stories in the barn (p. 5) to a social activist staging the role-reversing Women’s Parliament in Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre (p. 55). Dawson’s image and text pairings so palpably convey McClung’s charisma for contemporary readers that both author and protagonist are sure to attract new fans.
Adding further interest to this novel are its decorative details. Corporately, they play a marginal, but not inconsequential, role with respect to the narrative, adding little hits of levity. Each chapter, for instance, has a unique border design along the bottom of its pages, with page numbers of varying sizes and styles (solid, outlined, thick and thin strokes). The numbers are set in circles and surrounding by little creatures, such as a fish, ferret, and cow, to name but a few. Some of these totems have obvious tie-ins to the storyline. The fish in the chapter entitled “Into the Stream,” for example, relates to a voice-over that asserts, “Not being the kind of girl who would wait idly for any boy to wash up at her feet, Nellie plunges boldly in and swims out” (p. 24). The ferret appears in Chapter 4, during which Nellie and her friend tour a factory with the premier in tow. The premier recoils at the working conditions, but deflects with, “I still can’t see why two women like you would ferret out such utterly disgusting things” (p. 44). The cow’s relationship to the “Windy Nell” chapter remains covert, but it irreverently parades its tongue, udder, and tail by turns, perhaps in defiance of conventional behaviour, like McClung. There are many more examples, but the last image is particularly resonant: McClung winking conspiratorially at the reader.
If Hyena in Petticoats is a bit wordier than the average graphic novel, this phenomenon could be attributed to the fact that its leading lady possesses the gift of gab. Over the course of the novel, verbal communications between characters appear in varied forms: song lyrics, letters, journal entries, newspaper articles, a telegram, and, of course, speech bubbles. The dialogue is conversational, although with a (subtle) air of formality in keeping with the story’s early twentieth century setting. Still, the text presents McClung’s opinions on temperance and women’s rights in a clear, comprehensible way. It also candidly observes that Aboriginal women (and men) were not “allowed to vote without giving up treaty rights until 1960” (p. 69), a fact often whitewashed in all the hoopla over Caucasian women’s voting rights. Ultimately, Dawson offers readers a balanced picture of McClung, showing her shortcomings as well as her strengths, her trials as well as her triumphs. Astonishingly, Dawson shoehorns this text-heavy novel into ninety-five pages, including the “Afterword,” “Bibliography,” and “Acknowledgements.”
For individuals who haven’t heard of Nellie McClung or know very little of her, Hyena in Petticoats is an incredibly rich and entertaining introduction to the life of a remarkable Canadian. For those who consider the topic of McClung blasé, the graphic novel defamiliarizes her life story, compelling them to see it in a new way, to come to a new appreciation of her wit, energy, sense of humor, and determination. Both kinds of readers might find the 10 resources listed in the bibliography of further interest.
Like No Girls Allowed, Dawson’s earlier collaboration with Susan Hughes, Hyena in Petticoats should be on the must-have list for public and school libraries. It would make a great gift for young feminists, historians, and politicians. Boys and adults needn’t keep their distance, but the dedication identifies the intended audience with its exuberant rallying cry, “For all the girls!”
Julie Chychota grew up in Manitoba, lives in Ottawa, ON, and reads the comics section of the Saturday paper first.
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